Series on Deconstruction: Part 2 (The "Deconstruction Scale" and "Wounded Idealism")
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
In my previous article, I gave my own definition of deconstruction and pointed out that deconstruction can take place on a spectrum. In this article I want to give an illustration of how I perceive deconstruction and how it takes place in the lives of Christians today. If this is helpful to you, please let me know in the comments, or send me a question or comment in the “Ask a Question” tab.
I want to clarify that this is my perception of deconstruction as I've heard it discussed in a variety of settings. It's more or less a synthesis of the various perspectives I've heard on what deconstruction is (thus, a spectrum). I've realized any discussion of deconstruction is subjective. I pointed out in the first article that if you want to use the original definition, it's a postmodern theory, and hardly anyone seems to be using it that way in Christian culture. Deconstruction, because of the neutrality of the word, needs context and explanation. This is why I thought my take on the word (on a spectrum going from minimal to severe) might be helpful.
The Deconstruction Scale
When we go into the doctor and we sit down on the medical table, we will often see somewhere in the room a sheet of paper that asks, “What is your pain level?” You’ll see a happy face at one end with a series of faces that look increasingly more uncomfortable and pained.
I like to view deconstruction in a similar way:
Some of us are just fine with our beliefs and assumptions about our faith, God, or the world. Those people would be at level 0, experiencing no deconstruction.
Some of us, however, are shedding some beliefs and assumptions, but what we are shedding are not integral to our belief system, but more or less peripheral beliefs. This would be around 1-3 of the deconstruction scale.
Others are facing higher levels of deconstruction, with beliefs we previously considered important to our faith, but not essential or integral. This would be around 4-6 on the deconstruction scale.
Once we get to 7-9 of the deconstruction scale we are shedding beliefs that have been foundational to our faith. We are getting close to losing our worldview entirely.
Finally, the person who is at level 10 on the deconstruction scale has deconstructed their faith entirely. They have given up on all their previous beliefs and assumptions about God, faith, and the world and have resigned to either agnosticism, atheism, or a life that is practically agnostic or atheistic. When someone is at level 10, and sometimes levels 7-9 on the deconstruction scale, it may rightly be called not only deconstruction, but destruction.
Notice that I avoided putting emotions on this scale. This is because some are deconstructing with great elation and because they have been greatly burdened by their beliefs and assumptions. Others may be going through a tremendous amount of emotional and psychological pain when they begin to let go of some beliefs, partly because their deconstruction will bring disconnection from their group, either straining or cutting off relationships with friends and family.
The emotions involved in deconstruction will have to take place on a totally different scale. Some may be deconstructing lower on this scale and experiencing a very high amount of emotion or internal struggle. On the other hand, we all know the stories about young Christians who go off to college and are more than happy to let go of their beliefs and constraints completely so they can live without the boundaries imposed on them by church and family. They are eager to let go of beliefs and happier to see them go.
I also want to point out that this scale is about the level of beliefs someone is shedding. My point is that shedding the belief that Jesus dies on the cross for our sins, or a belief in God in general is obviously more integral to Christian faith than, say, deciding you are no longer a young earth creationist! However, the Young Earth Creationist may still feel they are giving up something integral to their belief system.
Personally, I prefer to avoid levels 7-9 on the deconstruction scale as much as I can and to stay within the 0-6 range. Since I’m a very inquisitive person, I usually fluctuate around this portion of the scale. I believe this is a healthy level of deconstruction and questioning of my beliefs and assumptions.
I still strive, however, to have compassion and empathy for those who are further down on the "Deconstruction Scale." I do my best to listen and understand what they are thinking and feeling. I hope they will come back to a more healthy level of deconstruction, but I recognize that everyone is on a journey and I can't control where my friends or family are at in that journey.
With the "Deconstruction Scale" in mind, I want to point out that deconstruction at its root is not always about intellectual beliefs, but involves our emotions surrounding those beliefs and a discontent with how they have worked themselves out in our lives.
People often struggle with beliefs emotionally for a long time before they start thinking about letting them go intellectually.
I’ve realized that my own deconstruction has (and still does) involve a thing called “wounded idealism.” I learned about this concept in a book called “Healing of a Wounded Idealist” by Justin and Irene Renton.
An idealist is a person who is a dreamer, a person for whom “life is full of endless possibilities… Imagination and fantasy open a world of promise and hope.” (pg. 23, Healing of a Wounded Idealist)
When I think about my life, this is how I started out as a Christian. I had high expectations. One might even say unrealistic. I expected to change the world and start changing people’s lives left and right. I expected people to start flocking to become disciples and be a part of my church. I expected miracles to happen. I expected to not have big issues with sin or addiction and to have full confidence in my own salvation the rest of my life.
I began to deconstruct my idealism when my friends began leaving my church and the new people who came in continued to leave as well.
I began to deconstruct my idealism when I realized my church is probably not right about everything and is just as broken with as many problems as many other churches.
I began to deconstruct my idealism when I didn’t have anywhere near the impact I thought I would on the college campuses I was a part of.
I began to deconstruct my idealism because of my struggles with sin and addiction, and being told that I may not even be a Christian by a minister in my church because I’ve sinned too much too often since I’ve become a Christian.
After experiencing these things, I’ve been tempted to throw in the towel, to become doubtful and cynical that any of my efforts are worthwhile. After all, I may not even be saved or forgiven. Why should I keep trying to do these things? Why should I have big dreams spiritually for my life and for God’s kingdom?
Unfortunately, the more idealistic a person is, the more life tends to bring them down. Over time, my idealism has been broken down constantly and I’ve struggled not to become a cynic: “As we age, life in a fallen world has a way of sobering us, thus tempering our imaginations and expectations…[The greatest visionaries] are the most likely to have their hearts broken.” (pg. 24)
Once someone’s idealism is deconstructed they begin to see much of the world as confusing and ambiguous. Life doesn’t always make sense. Optimism, or high expectations, seem to make less sense. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. The great wounded idealist of scripture has said, everyone is subject to “time and chance” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). In this mode, a former idealist is likely to become a cynic.
For me, identifying exactly what it was I have experienced around idealism has been helpful. I was dealing with the pain of unmet expectations, of things in my life going different than I expected or envisioned. At times, I can be so tainted by my unmet expectations that I can’t even appreciate the good things in my life where God is working and has blessed me.
What is necessary is for me to go back and look at how my expectations should be adjusted, striving to regain a new hope for my life based on reality. The Renton’s call this middle ground between idealism and cynicism “faithful realism.”
I’m still in the process of finding this healthy middle ground. I’m still learning how to adjust my expectations of God, faith, scripture, myself, and the church while remaining faithful. I still fluctuate between one and six of the deconstruction scale sometimes tipping further over the seven line than I would like.
Our deconstruction usually involves our emotions first before we ever start getting to intellectual beliefs. More often than not, it starts from a place of wounded idealism or unmet expectations.
Perhaps this article will help you think about your own deconstruction and what kind of emotions are leading to a questioning of beliefs and assumptions about the faith, God, and the world. Doing this may help you also identify the authenticity of your deconstruction.
Are you deconstructing certain beliefs because you want a different situation in life?
Because you've had possibly unrealistic or untrue expectations of God, church, faith, or the Bible?
Because you want to live a certain lifestyle?
Because you are angry with what some people in the church have done to you?
I don’t mean to say that these emotions would negate the authenticity of your deconstruction, but they would help with self-awareness and honesty as you address intellectual beliefs.